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Blues Harmonica Legend James Cotton Dead at 81

Tom Hill, Getty Images
Tom Hill, Getty Images

Blues harmonica legend James Cotton has died after a bout of pneumonia. The 81-year-old earlier overcame a bout with throat cancer in the ’90s, before recording a final star-studded album that included Gregg Allman, Chuck Leavell and Warren Haynes.

In fact, Cotton always had plenty of rock connections. He served as an opening act for Janis Joplin early in his solo career. His initial album for Verve was produced by Michael Bloomfield; he signed with Paul Butterfield’s manager Albert Grossman, who also represented Bob Dylan, the Band and Joplin. Over the years, Cotton would open for or sit in with Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Keith Richards, Santana, Cream, Little Feat and Steve Miller.

He first rose to fame as a high-energy sideman for Muddy Waters during a 12-year stint into the ’60s, having made his initial recordings for Sun Records in 1953 at age 15. “‘Cotton Crop Blues‘ was the first one on my own,” Cotton told PBS. “When I wrote that song I never thought I’d get a chance to record it. I had a radio show and [Sun Records owner Sam] Phillips called me up one day and said, ‘Would you like to do some recording?'”

Listen to James Cotton Perform ‘Midnight Train’ With Gregg Allman

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Known as “Mr. Superharp,” James Cotton was born on a Mississippi cotton plantation on July 1, 1935, and was already playing the blues by age nine. Tragedy struck that year, however, when both of Cotton’s parents died. Sonny Boy Williamson II, a harmonica legend from the previous generation who would tour with the Yardbirds, took Cotton under his wing. “I just watched the things he’d do, because I wanted to be just like him,” Cotton once said. “Anything he played, I played it.”

When Williamson moved to Wisconsin, Cotton began working with Howlin’ Wolf. By then, word of his youthful prowess was beginning to spread. Waters tracked Cotton down during a Friday night happy-hour gig at Memphis’ Dinette Lounge in December 1954, looking for a touring sideman after Little Walter departed. Cotton took over, but it would be four years before he replaced Walters on Muddy Waters’ studio recordings. That lengthy apprenticeship clearly paid off, as Cotton ended up providing signature performances on Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working” single and the At Newport album for Chess, before going on to release nearly 30 albums on his own. Cotton later appeared on 1977’s Hard Again, a Grammy-winning album by Waters that was produced by Johnny Winter.

Cancer surgery in 1994 impacted his ability to sing, but Cotton continued playing the harmonica, inviting guest singers or band members to take the mic. “The voice is gone,” he memorably told NPR, “but the wind is still there.” His recording career came to a close with Cotton Mouth Man in 2013. Cotton died at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin.

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